NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Toronto Maple Leafs
The NHL is simply a more exciting league when the Toronto Maple Leafs are a competitive team and the team appears to be built to be competitive for a long time. It is not a secret that the Leafs fully bought into a youth movement and the team is set to reap the benefits for the years to come. The team will have some tough decisions to make this offseason with members of the “old core” but the new core looks set to take over.
The first bright spot worth mentioning here is obviously Nikita Zaitsev. Kidding of course, Auston Matthews is the heartbeat and future captain of the team and it should come as no surprise that he is the first bright spot I will focus on. He scored 34 goals and had 29 assists in only 62 games. There is not much I can say that has not already been said so I will try to focus on some unique stats that other articles of this nature may not have noticed. The focus will always be on his offensive talent, and rightfully so, but he is great without the puck in his own end as well. He blocks passes in the defensive zone and even blocks more than 1 shot per 20 minutes. This should not come as a surprise because a player of Matthews’ skill level just knows where to be at all times when he is on the ice. it is a testament to his hockey sense, which is difficult to measure but when looking at numbers like this it starts to make more sense. Before I move on from Matthews I wanted to point out an offensive statistic that separates Matthews from other high-end skill players. His ability to get to the slot and get pucks on net is comparable to Alex Ovechkin, he gets more than 2 shots on next per 20 minutes from the slot, a rate good enough to be near the top of the league.
Two years ago, William Nylander was the young player who burst onto the scene alongside Matthews. Nylander had another solid campaign in 2017 but if when the history of the Leafs is being written 2017 will be remembered and the year that Mitch Marner came out of his shell. Marner scored 22 goals and set up 47 more, good for 69 points, 8 more than he had in the previous season. Losing to Boston hurt but Marner was fantastic in the series, amassing 9 points in the seven games. He looks like a great complement to the Matthews-Nylander line. He also was a great possession player, his 53.6% Corsi was one of the best on the team. The high volume of assists should mean the following statistics should not come as a surprise. Marner had a pass to the slot success rate of 42% and was able to make 1.62 successful passes to the slot per 20 minutes. In other words, he is great at setting up players in the best positions to score. Marner should continue to develop and get stronger, if he can up his individual goal total the Leafs will have a two headed monster in Marner and Matthews.
It looks like the Leafs may have found half of their top pair moving forward. Twenty-four-year-old Morgan Rielly played top minutes and excelled in his time on ice. he produced 52 points on the year and is great to have on the powerplay to pair up with the skilled forwards. It is no secret that his biggest strength is his offensive upside and the statistics only further that ideology. He makes about 4.5 plays per 20 minutes (5v5) that generate scoring chances for the Leafs. Toronto is at its best off the rush and Rielly is among the best in the league at executing stretch passes. These passes get the pucks up ice to forwards quickly and Toronto has more than enough skill up front to capitalize. Some of his defensive numbers are not as impressive but I think Rielly is a fitting example of the idea that the best defense is a good offense. He is a positive Corsi player and a big focus of the Leafs plan moving forward must be finding a defensive minded partner to play big minutes alongside Rielly.
Perhaps that option may already be on the roster. Travis Dermott was called up in January and was a mainstay on the roster for the remainder of the season. Some of his defensive measurables are among the best in the league from the time he was called up. He denied more than half of the zone entries where he was defined as the primary defender. Dermott is not the biggest player, he is only 6 feet tall and weighs 208 pounds, but he uses his body and stick well. He does well to win contested puck battles and recoveries opponents dump-ins at a high rate. The only issue with a Dermott/Rielly pairing is the fact that they are both lefthanded shots. Teams prefer having a right-handed defenseman to play opposite the lefties. Regardless, Dermott should slot into the top four in Toronto for years to come.
The Leafs must have been sick of being pushed around by the Bruins in the division because the team went out and signed Matt Martin after the 2015-2016 season. This past year he only appeared in 50 games and was a healthy scratch late in the season. His cap hit is $2.5M which is not a complete disaster, but the team would certainly like a player making that much money to be in the lineup night in and night out. For reference, Zach Hyman played with Auston Matthews for most of the year and his cap hit was only $2.25M. Martin plays a heavy game and the numbers back that up but unfortunately there is not much else he brings to the table.
Leo Komarov was another interesting case for the Leafs. In my opinion he was one of the worst forwards on the roster. He did play a defensive role, he only had a 20% offensive zone start rate and he often played against top competition. However, that role can be filled by several players who would not cost as much as Komarov ($2.95M). His Corsi% was 45.2%, which is one of the worst on the team. In the bright spot section, I highlighted how good Matthews and Marner are with the puck on their stick. In this section I will explain how much Komarov struggled. He rarely possessed the puck in the offensive zone, he only had possession for 18 seconds during every 20 minutes of ice time. The real issue is with his defensive metrics, for a forward who is supposed to play a shutdown role his numbers are not very impressive. He is a good shot blocker and does a decent job denying entries but once the puck is in the zone he appears to be a step slow. When Komarov is on the ice opponents register, 3 scoring chances that are considered “off the cycle”. Essentially it means teams can possess the puck and create chances against the Leafs when Komarov is on the ice. Luckily for the Leafs he is a pending UFA, so the team could decide to let him walk and test the market.
Lastly, there are some defenseman that should be written about in this section. To say Roman Polak had a tough year would be putting it gently. The 32-year-old veteran appeared in 54 games this year. He had a sub-50% Corsi (47.4%) and I think this happened because he is not a very good passer. His outlet passes are only successful 60% of the time, the number drops to 50% when the pass is extended to be considered a stretch pass. In other words, he is not very good at moving the puck up ice away from the Leaf net. He was a physical presence, but I would be surprised if the Leafs also opt to let him leave the team this offseason.
The first issue I would tackle if I were Kyle Dubas would be to lock up William Nylander long-term. Nylander is a productive player who will be in his prime during the contract and the team will have a “big 3” of Matthews, Marner and Nylander moving forward. A 5-7-year deal with an AAV of somewhere between 7 and 9 million dollars seems right for Nylander. He is an exciting young talent but does not command 10M and it makes sense for him to be the second or third highest paid player on a team. Auston Matthews will get a megadeal, so locking up Nylander for less would be good for the team and the player. The easy comparison is to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, Toronto will want to have something similar moving forward. We previously wrote why signing Nylander long-term makes the most sense. That article can be found here.
Signing Nylander seems like a no brainer for the Leafs but that is the only easy choice they will make this offseason. The team has 22M in cap space but for arguments sake let’s assume they have 16M after resigning Nylander. Members of the old core are all UFAs and I am curious to see how Dubas will handle the situation. Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk have all been with the team for an extended period and will be able to test the market. Tomas Plekanec was acquired during the season and he will also be a UFA. I would not be surprised if Dubas lets all the players walk. When a new General Manager is hired it seems like he is always looking to put his stamp on the team. Dubas has worked extensively with the Toronto Marlies and is very familiar with young prospects like Kasperi Kapanen, Jeremy Bracco and Timothy Liljegren. It would not come as a surprise if two, or maybe even three, of these players start the season in the NHL next year.
I mentioned what Dubas could do but now I will mention what I would do. I would let Plekanec, Komarov, van Riemsdyk, Polak and Dominic Moore sign elsewhere. James Van Riemsdyk Is the one player on the list that some would argue the Leafs should keep. To me, it comes down to JVR or Tyler Bozak. I would choose Bozak because I like him as a player, but it is more about value. Van Riemsdyk is going to sign a big money contract on July 1st and I am always wary of giving out big contracts in free agency. JVR is 29 and Bozak is 32, so in theory both players are already past their primes. If van Riemsdyk is not past his prime, he is certainly at the tail end. Regardless, he figures to sign for at least 5 years and should make at least 5-5.5M per season. This means his contract would end at age 34, I would rather sign Bozak until he is 35 at a contract with a cap hit closer to $4M. Bozak plays a solid two-way game at center and would be very difficult to replace in the Leaf lineup. JVR is talented but I think it is reasonable to expect the much younger Kapanen to produce at a similar level at a much more team friendly cost.
Even if the team fills some slots with younger players I would expect the team to be relatively active in the free agent market. However, it might not be in the way fans might expect from the Leafs. Kyle Dubas does not seem like the type to throw big money at the biggest names, instead I would expect hm to try to find value where other teams are not looking. I would not be surprised if Toronto ended up signing a handful of $1.5-3M dollar players who are minimal risk but have a chance to be high reward players. Michael Grabner is a name that comes to mind, while his price may be a bit higher than the $3M his statistics make him seem like a player Dubas and his team might covet.
Regardless of what actions Dubas takes the Leafs have a strong young core that should be competitive for a playoff spot. It will be interesting to see how the team handles the heightened expectations and how potential changes will impact the style of play. Assuming Mike Babcock and Auston Matthews have handled their rumored issues the core of the Leafs should have the team competing with the Boston and Tampa Bay for the top spot in the division again next season.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Boston Bruins. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com
JUSTIN WHITE is an intern AFP Analytics. Justin is a graduate of St. John Fisher College where he earned his degree in Sport Management and Statistics. He has worked with the Rochester Americans and members of their coaching staff on various analytics and statistics-based projects.
NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets are an interesting case study in how a team can change a member or two of its “core” and still be successful. The team followed up a successful 2016 campaign with another playoff appearance in 2017. This year the team had to be hopeful to advance past the first round, especially after taking two games to zero lead against the Capitals. However, the team fell short of advancing and will have to answer some tough questions this offseason.
The Artemi Panarin trade is looking more and more like highway robbery. The Blue Jackets got a top offensive talent and Panarin showed no signs of slowing down in 2017. He is one of the most exciting players to watch with the puck on his stick and his advanced statistics support the eye test. His offensive zone play is nothing short of spectacular, he is great on the rush and off the cycle. All his pass rates are among the best in the league, he averages almost two passes to the slot per twenty minutes and his success rate is 45.2%. The number may not seem impressive at first look but once you think about the emphasis that is placed on defending the slot the number quickly becomes more impressive. Panarin’s skating and playmaking is where he truly excels. He has 6.13 controlled zone entries per twenty minutes and 31.7% of his offensive zone entries result in a scoring chance for the Jackets. There is not much to say about Panarin that has not already been said, he is a special talent and the Blue Jackets are fortunate to have a player like him.
Another young player who took a huge step forward this season in Columbus was Pierre-luc Dubois. The former number three overall selection had a fantastic season. The Blue Jackets are a good possession team and Dubois was no different. He has a Corsi for percentage of 55.4%, not too bad for a 19-year-old. He is a great passer and playmaker off the cycle, his pass to the slot success rate (45.8%) was even better than Panarin’s. One area of his game that could be improved is his physical play, his recovery rates are not on par with other forwards who scored like he did, but that can easily be written off because of his age and the fact that he may not be done developing physically. With that being said, he was responsible in his own end which is a great sign for such a young player. He blocked 5.14 passes per 20 minutes and denied more than half of the controlled entries against him.
The last young forward worth mentioning is Oliver Bjorkstrand. While he may not the media love that some of his teammates get the 23-year-old was a key contributor to the Blue Jackets success. He excelled on the forecheck and the cycle. He made more than 7 north/south cycle passes per twenty minutes and received nearly 10 passes in the offensive zone per twenty minutes as well. The Bjorkstrand line figured to be a key contributor to the Blue Jackets 9th ranked Corsi for % (51.49%).
Now let’s shift the focus to the back end, the Jackets have two young defensemen that played well and played big minutes. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are among the best young players in the league and should be a staple on the Jackets blue line for years to come. Jones is only 23 years old and was in the Norris trophy discussion this season, and his numbers illustrate why. His stretch and outlet pass rates are both close to 70% success which is fantastic and allows players like Panarin to excel off the rush. Jones is a point producer on the powerplay and is responsible defensively as well. In other words, he is the prototype defenseman that can play in all situations and is great with the puck. Werenski is not as strong defensively but the Blue Jackets did an excellent job starting him in the offensive zone where he would be able to succeed. He also saw plenty of powerplay time and has an elite shot that is a weapon from the point and on the off wing. Shot success rate is a measure that determines what percent of a players shot attempts result in a scoring chance. Werenski had a shooting success rate of 49%, a substantial number for a defenseman. This means that nearly half of his shots get to the net and create scoring opportunities for the Blue Jackets.
Lastly, Sergei Bobrovsky deserves to be mentioned after another strong season. His expected even strength goals allowed was 2.61 goals per game. His actual measure was 1.99, this means he was allowing .62 less goals per game than he was expected to allow based on quality of chances and volume of shots. In other words, he had a great season. He was not one of the best goalies when the team was short handed but his 5v5 play was so great he was able to keep the Jackets in almost every game and belongs in the conversation when discussing who is the best goalie in the game.
It might not be fair to list Brandon Dubinsky as a disappointment because he is asked to paly a specific role and he does a respectable job in his role. He is a defensive minded forward who plays tough minutes against the opponents’ best players. This could explain why his Corsi% was 46.9%, one of the worst on the team. Unfortunately, $5.8M for 6 goals and 10 assists in 62 games is simply not a smart investment. The Blue Jackets could find a player for $1M or $2M who could play a similar role. Boone Jenner is another player who fits this bill, but he is on a much more manageable contract. The Blue Jackets could have been expecting Jenner to take his game to the next level, but it looks like he has already peaked.
Another player that must be listed here is Josh Anderson, he is not listed here because of his production. Instead he is listed here because of what could have been. The Blue Jackets left both Anderson and William Karlsson unprotected in the expansion draft and the Jackets made a deal with Vegas to incentivize the Golden Knights to take Karlsson instead of Anderson. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 but even half of Karlsson’s production would have looked better than the 19 goals and 12 assists that Anderson produced.
The Blue Jackets did have players who failed to meet expectations on the ice in 2017. Jack Johnson only produced 10 points and had a 47% corsi for. Of course, his offensive zone start percentage of 30% is much lower than Jones or Werenski but his defensive statistics were not very impressive. He only blocked 4.81 passes per twenty minutes and was able to deny just 43.6% of zone entries. I would expect a player who is thought to be a shutdown defenseman to have much better defensive based statistics.
Some of these disappointments may seem nitpicky, because the Blue Jackets did have a great season, but every team has areas that they can improve, and the three players specifically mentioned above are players who the Blue Jackets may have expected more from in 2017.
This is where things start to get interesting in Columbus. The Blue Jackets have 11 pending free agents and will enter the offseason with only $13M or so in cap space. The team figures to let players like Thomas Vanek, Mark Letestu and maybe even Jack Johnson walk. The tough decisions come with players like Boone Jenner and Matt Calvert. Jenner is 24 and made $2.9M in 2017 and Calvert is 28 and had a $2.2M cap hit this past season. These two players will not take a pay cut, so it will be interesting to see what the team decides to do. I think I would try to resign both, if you dive into the free agent pool you are going to see players who are comparable to Calvert and Jenner. In the case of the Blue Jackets the team would be wise to try to bring back both players because they are familiar with John Tortorella and his style of coaching. Oliver Bjorkstrand is another one of those players that could be signed in the $2M-$3M dollar range, and I am high on him so the longer the term the better.
The real cap issues are going to come after this upcoming season. The team will have to sign both Panarin and Werenski, so any moves the team makes this offseason should be made with next offseason in mind. If the players are willing Columbus should try to sign one of the players now. They are both proven talents and locking them up sooner rather than later would only make things easier on the front office.
Now let’s wrap up by talking about the elephant in the room. Sergei Bobrovsky only has one year left on his current deal. He is a $7.425M cap hit and he will not be taking a pay cut when he signs his next deal. This may seem like a hot take but if I were the GM of the Blue Jackets I would not be the team to give him that contract. It is not a slight on Bobrovsky, he is a great goaltender it is simply a measure of value. The Blue Jackets look like they are built to be competitive for a long time and they will need the cap flexibility to move pieces in and out of their lineup (ala Penguins). Signing Bobrovsky to a Carey Price like deal would tie up the Blue Jackets and would make a mess of their salary cap. If the team has an additional $5M dollars to spend on a player to bolster their roster the team would still be able to compete with a goaltender who makes $5M instead of $10M.
In conclusion, the Blue Jackets could head in any direction they choose. Perhaps management is not satisfied with the first round exit this season and will look to move on from most of their pending free agents. I would keep the team in tact and wait until next offseason to make any sweeping changes, especially with the contracts that will have to be signed or could come off the books in 2019.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Philadelphia Flyers. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com
JUSTIN WHITE is an intern AFP Analytics. Justin is a graduate of St. John Fisher College where he earned his degree in Sport Management and Statistics. He has worked with the Rochester Americans and members of their coaching staff on various analytics and statistics based projects.